December 15, 2007

Face to Face with Malaysia

Posted in Malaysia, Tricia's Writings at 10:47 am by egalitaria

This is a draft paper I’ve written for ROH (Revolution of Hope), a Christian group I belong to. It’s still in the process of being refined, but I would welcome any feedback from you guys before I develop it further into a 5,000 word essay to be published thereafter. Cheers!

Face to Face with Malaysia:

An Analysis of the Malaysian Reality


In attempting to seek theological responses to developments in Malaysia, it is first necessary to analyse in a thorough manner the realities being faced presently. This paper therefore seeks to explore the Malaysian reality, complete with positive achievements and more importantly, the challenges faced today. It attempts to provide a clear and unbiased perspective of the real issues confronted by everyday Malaysians. This will be done by first giving a brief history of Malaysian past, and then highlighting these issues thereafter. Face to face with Malaysia, does the Church see through a glass darkly?


A. Back to the Past

 Much of what Malaysia inherits today is a result of past heritage, no doubt. As early as the 1930’s, Tun Tan Cheng Lock in his correspondence[1] wrote of the problems that resulted from the then growing influx of migrants from mainland China, and consequent rise of new generation Malayan Chinese and Indians. Negotiating for the nation’s Independence, eventually achieved in 1957, was no easy task. Main issues of concern at the time were citizenship of non-Malays, Malay as a national language and whether or not Islam was to be of state or federal jurisdiction. These issues were discussed over a period of time, evident within historical documents of the Cobbold Commission Report[2], Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals[3] and the Reid Commission Report[4].  As a result of these reports, a compromise was eventually reached and resulted in the Federal Constitution 1957, finalized in the same year as Malaya’s Independence. The Federal Constitution was drafted in a spirit of seeking consensus amongst all communities resident in Malaya, and provided fundamental liberties and freedoms of all basic sorts. This is expressed clearly in Article 8, which states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law. Discrimination on the grounds only of religion, race, descent, or place of birth (sic) is plainly prohibited therein. Amongst the fundamental freedoms provided in the Constitution are the freedom to assemble, the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech and expression. It is important to take note of this document that was carefully crafted by the nation’s forefathers, and has largely been foundational to the development of laws and structures in society.  Within the Constitution, several outstanding matters aforementioned were ironed out accordingly, providing Malay as the national language[5], Islam as the religion of the Federation[6] and safeguarding the Malays and the natives of the States of Sabah and Sarawak’s special position[7] and their legitimate interests. Guidelines for the acquisition of citizenship were clearly set out, and this has been largely argued as the basis of the “social contract”. The social contract is understood today as the compact between the Bumiputera (literally, princes of the earth, referring to Malay and other indigenous communities of Malaysia) and non-Bumiputera; where in exchange for citizenship, Bumiputera communities would be granted special privileges.[8] The social contract as a phrase unto itself is not articulated within the Federal Constitution, its use believed to originate from a politician.  With this social setting in place, Malaya grew in economic prosperity for a decade or so, before economic disparity between the ethnic communities grew apparent. Most evident was the difference of economic wealth between the Chinese and the Malay communities. In 1969, Chinese owned 27%, whilst Malays owned only 2.4% of the national economy. Although much of national wealth was attributed to foreign ownership, internally such economic disparity was cause for concern. This resulted in the infamous racial riots between Malays and Chinese[9] on 13th May 1969, violence of which is now seared into the collective memory of Malaysians, and has affected national policies still in existence today.  After a 2-year period during which time Parliament was dissolved and the country was governed under the National Operations Council (NOC), the 1st Malaysia Plan was then launched, which included the New Economic Policy (NEP), meant to address economic woes. The two-pronged goals of the NEP were to eradicate poverty regardless of race, and to eliminate the association of race with job function. The way to measure success of the NEP was outlined as a target of 30% of corporate equity ownership amongst the Bumiputera community. The NEP would last for a period of 20 years, or when the target would be achieved, whichever the sooner.  The country then transitioned into the National Development Policy (NDP), and subsequently the National Vision Policy (NVP), under which Malaysia is currently operating. Despite the change in names, titles and abbreviations of many an economic policy, contents and objectives have not varied significantly. Many have instead accused affirmative action policies as being obsolete in nature. This will be further discussed in the next section.  

B. The Malaysian Reality

 Given this contextual background, several key issues facing Malaysia today will be highlighted. This is by no means an exhaustive list of challenges, but provides the reader a comprehensive understanding of the primary topics that concern the Malaysian citizenry. These are divided into three broad sections, through which other sub-topics will be raised. These sections are: Socio-Economic Conditions, Identity, and Institutional Structures.  1. Socio-Economic Conditions  a) New Economic Policy  Malaysia has grown its economic cake significantly over the past 50 years, where absolute poverty rates have plummeted. The NEP has no doubt been catalyst to economic development, raising the bar for many of its South East Asian counterparts. Whilst congratulatory remarks are due, equally pressing are the loopholes in the system, along with those members of society who fall into these cracks without forming more than a mere statistic in the minds of politician or academic alike.  The NEP iterated above has been a cause of much disgruntlement amongst the non-Bumiputera community. Affirmative action policies within the NEP intended to elevate the socio-economic disposition of the Bumiputera were manifested in different forms, tools implemented within systems of tertiary education, banking and finance, the corporate sector, stock market, housing and property loans, and so on. Privileges in the form of preferential treatment for student selection, financial discounts, tax rebates, quotas for publicly listed shares and others have ensued over the last 36 years or so. Although necessary at the time, many non-Bumiputera individuals feel that these policies are no longer relevant in today’s day and age for a number of reasons.  One, the status of Malays has been adequately elevated, and such crutches should not be prolonged since they have proven their competitive worth. Two, preferential treatment policies are warrant to abuse and misuse, evidence of which is beginning to surface – these result in eventual leakage and wastage of public funds. As absolute power corrupts absolutely, the power lies with the determinants of national wealth. Corruption has become so closely associated with the ability to tweak economic policies to one’s own advantage that many suspect a shifting goal post of the NEP/NVP. Some quip the NEP as the “Never-Ending Policy” for that very reason. Three, as Malaysia embarks upon a path towards regional and international socio-economic liberalization, it cannot any longer rely upon national protectionist policies that will grant it covering against global giants. Although safety nets are required to protect infant industries, blatant policies that discriminate one against the other along ethnic lines (which are in fact unconstitutional in nature) are archaic and thoroughly unaccepted internationally.  International investors are not alien to these issues, and have of late brought their cash elsewhere. The drop in latest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) figures are testament of this. Likewise, manufacturing revenues have fallen, and stock market investors are turning to neighbouring countries Singapore and Hong Kong which provide more attractive financial incentives. If these come as a result of affirmative action policies, this is what angers the local community. Not only is their share of the cake eaten into, but the profits they would have otherwise rightfully earned are also lost.  Despite the fact that these policies are blatantly unfair, the Government has preferred not to directly address these, in fact making use of “May 13th 1969”, the Internal Security Act (ISA), and the Sedition Act, to ward off any fiery remark made against both theory and implementation of such policies. In 2006, the Economic Planning Unit and the Prime Minister himself dismissed without thorough investigation a report that quoted the possibility of Bumiputera corporate equity ownership reaching above 30%, its original target.  b) Ethnic Minorities: The Truly Marginalised  The Indian community largely neglected within this complexity, has recently expressed its displeasure at being marginalised within national development, handing over memoranda to Parliament in 2007. Whilst the Chinese communities have largely fought their corporate battles and risen to middle and upper class status, abject poverty amongst the Indians number in the tens of thousands.  Although the Government attempts to address balanced regional development, Sabah and Sarawak (East Malaysian states) continue to fall within the poorest of Malaysian states. Corruption is equally rife in East Malaysia, where the gap between the rich and the poor is at ridiculously high levels. Indeed, the Gini coefficient that measures income disparity has worsened over the last five years.[10] This is especially prominent within the Malay community, whose coefficient is increasing at a faster pace than other ethnic groups.  Ethnic minorities encompass a group of people greatly marginalised presently, which includes the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia, and the indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak. Current issues that plague indigenous groups in Malaysia are Native Customary Rights (NCR), where non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have constantly called for NCR land rights in particular to be restored to their rightful owners. Other rights that need to be equally restored are cultural and religious rights, where their original traditional practices of subsistence include planting and working the ground, activities which are no longer possible as development slowly creeps in. Such basic rights of the Orang Asli have currently been taken pseudo-ownership of by the Department of Orang Asli (Jabatan Orang Asli). The JOA, meant to deal with problems and issues faced by the Orang Asli, has not sufficiently dealt with systemic and institutional failures, the results of which need to be constantly picked up upon by NGO groups.  2. Identity a) Post-Colonial Mentality  Spanning 50 years of Independence, one would imagine a mature society steadily developing, one feature of which is a sense of identity. Despite the many successes in maintaining a relatively peaceful and harmonious nation, the country still inevitably struggles with its sense of identity, at the individual, community and national levels.  A post-colonial nation, Malaya, then becoming Malaysia (with the inclusion of Sabah and Sarawak) in 1963, has inherited a British legacy evident within key structures in society. These include systems of transport, education, infrastructure (roads, railway), and Government. Emerging from a British colony, Malayans immediately adopted these systems as “best practices”. Along the way, Malaysia has had to adapt for itself these systems according to localized needs, especially in light of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.  Nevertheless, it continues to deal with an identity mismatch between wanting to react against colonialism, developing a “national way” of doing things, versus desiring to adopt liberal economic policies in order to propel itself forward as a first world, developed nation by year 2020. The schizophrenic mentality that seems to swing like a pendulum shows itself all too clearly within Government, where ministries make opposing remarks. On one hand, Malaysians desire to see themselves as truly Asian first, but competing internationally means caring about international views and subscribing to globally accepted standards. It is necessary for Malaysia to, on national level, although be secure and confident in the Asian system of values, she should also conform to international standards.  b) Race and Religion At individual and communitarian level, identities within ethnic communities themselves need to be analysed thoroughly. The main clashes seem to revolve around the two subjects of taboo material: “race” and “religion”. Malays make up close to 60% of the country’s population of 24.8 million, Chinese about 25%, Indians 3%, and the remainder by other minority groups.  Constitutionally, a Malay is defined as someone who speaks Malay, practices Malay customs or lives the Malay way of life, and professes the religion of Islam. Race then subsumes religion in this case. Nowhere in any other country is a Malay given such a definition.[11] One may argue that this definition arose out of the very intertwining itself between religion and cultural pasts. Perhaps this was not posed as a problem before, but increasingly this clause has caused tremendous controversy in recent months.  The flaw lies in the confusion over whether it is constitutional for a Muslim to convert out of his or her religion and remain a Malay. Even in the case of a Muslim giving up his or her rights as a Malay (and hence, Bumiputera, who would otherwise have been recipient of inherent privileges), there are differing opinions as to the legal factors driving this. Malaysia has two court systems, the syariah and the civil court, the latter of which is legally called a “superior court”. Some state that syariah court’s purpose was primarily to deal with family (marriage and divorce) issues. Others, however, argue that conversion in or out of Islam falls under the jurisdiction of the syariah court.  The vague jurisdiction of powers has led to numerous high-profile cases being put on hold, or if resolved, ends in justice not being served its due course. In addition to conversion cases are those involving death and religious rites, custody of children, divorce and settlements, and so on. The most prominent case receiving international media coverage was that of Lina Joy, a Malay girl who became a Christian. Intending to change her name accordingly, she encountered difficulties with the National Registration Department (NRD), who passed the authority over to the syariah court, who later failed to approve the request. This tantamounted to Lina being unable to assume a Christian name.  Cases as these culminated in a move by civil society in early 2006 to convene and make a stand for religious freedoms. Article 11, a coalition of NGOs, have and still do advocate that Article 11 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia guarantees freedom of religion for all, which includes the controversial interpretation: the right to choose one’s faith. This, however, has been negatively reacted against by the more conservative Muslim groups who see the initiative as a subversive attempt at attacking the religion itself; this is certainly not the case.  Apostasy is viewed as a serious sin within Islam, which is in essence a very communal religion, each individual responsible for the welfare of another. The more liberal Muslim would state that if one were to leave one’s religion, it is a choice that is made, rightly or wrongly. It should therefore be punishable as sin by God, but certainly not punishable as crime by the State.  On a more public level, the debate about whether Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state has also ensued. Year 2001 was the first time former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed declared that Malaysia was an Islamic State[12]. Since then, leadership has not been clear on the issue, leading up to 2007 during which two separate Ministers made contradictory remarks: Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, stated strongly and clearly that Malaysia is a secular state. On the contrary, Deputy Prime Minister Dato’ Abdul Najib bin Razak feels that Malaysia is an Islamic state. Much of the debate centers on the definition of Islamic or secular, as well as the “state” issue. Practising Islamic principles as a way of life is generally deemed to be acceptable to all Malaysians (this is what is being done in any case). However, in legal terms this posits a greater problem that affects the judiciary system.  It has been said that not enough Malays understand the fears of the non-Malay, and vice versa. Both sides have equally genuine fears about their religions, races and identities being under siege. These concerns are real and should not be dismissed. If anything, these fears should be allayed by ensuring individuals are comfortable, at ease and secure about their identities, without having to be more defensive than is necessary. Every problem should be a Malaysian problem.    3. Institutional Structures Elements of a democracy include clear separation between the three pillars in Government: the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. Each of these structures must be independent from the other. When the lines between the three are increasingly blurred, this is cause for concern. More worrisome is when the integrity of each of the pillars is in question. This is the case in Malaysia today.  a) The Judiciary  The most recent case pointing towards the extraneous influence within the Judiciary is one, which as recently as September 2007 took place. A video recording showing a senior lawyer speaking in telephone conversation with who is believed to be the current Chief Justice, shows clear evidence of “position-fixing”. Since the Judiciary crisis in 1988 where the Lord President of the Judiciary, Tun Salleh Abas, was removed, judiciary independence has notably decreased. Numerous cases have caused the public’s confidence in the judiciary to erode. Civil society groups and more importantly, the Malaysian Bar, have constantly called upon the establishment of an independent Judicial Selections Committee to ensure the transparency of the selection and promotion of judges.  A Judiciary that is not independent means it is influenced in its judging of cases. This affects the public directly, and is a major source of worry. When the system of justice itself cannot protect the people, hence not living up to its very purpose for which it exists, this spells doom.  The Constitution has also undergone numerous amendments, none of which result in giving any more freedom to the citizenry than before.  b) The Executive  Within the Executive, the most pressing of issues is that dealing with law enforcement agencies. The Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police recommended, amongst others, the need for an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) that would monitor the Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) independently. This was reacted vehemently against by the RMP. This comes in light of numerous cases of abuse of police power. This includes cases of strip searching (now banned), and under-reported deaths in custody, amongst others.  The People’s Volunteer Corps (RELA), a body set up to originally assist the Police in handling illegal immigrants, have taken upon itself the role of physically abusing migrant workers and refugees, many of whom are present in Malaysia illegally not of their own doing. Other law enforcement agencies in question are religious moral policemen who increasingly target non-Muslims for acts that are supposedly unlawful within syariah law.  Corruption within the Executive arm is only speculative and not indicative based on statistics. The Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI), however, released annually by Transparency International, is revealing of public opinion. Malaysia’s ranking dropped from 39th position in 2005 to 44th place in 2006, the second time it has fallen in consecutive years. Although the CPI does not directly link with the Executive, it is public knowledge that major corruption comes through Government contracts given out by this very arm.  c) The Legislature  A healthy Parliament is one that consists of a balanced representation from all Malaysians from all walks of life, from as wide a variety of political views as possible. In Malaysia, Barisan Nasional (the National Front), comprising main parties UMNO (United Malays’ National Organisation), MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association), MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) and other smaller component parties, form 92% of Parliament. The voice of opposition parties is small, to say the least.  Bills that are passed to become Acts by Parliament are given much less time to debate upon presently than they used to in the past. Public consultation is not given sufficient time to truly obtain honest views and feedback from important stakeholders in society. When they do take place, no process is made known as to how these are eventually input into policies.  Many Acts have been severely criticised as behaving contrary to the spirit of the Federal Constitution. The Internal Security Act (ISA) is a case in point, set up under the Emergency Ordinances Act (EO) during the Communist era, it is technically still in place today because the country has never removed its Emergency status. The ISA has been used voraciously to imprison protestors especially during the Reformasi (Reformation) years 1997-1998 when former Deputy Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from Government under seemingly undemocratic ways.  Other Acts which make a mockery of Malaysian democracy are the Official Secrets Act (OSA), a colonial heritage of the past, largely used to protect national security from external foreign forces. This was used in 2006 to prevent toll concession agreements from going public.[13] It has also been used in 2007 to make an unwarranted arrest of blogger Nathaniel Tan, who was purported to possess classified documents implicating a senior Minister of a charge he was apparently later vindicated from.[14] The Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) continues to restrict students’ involvement in political activity. This is ridiculously irrelevant within today’s society of free information flow on the internet and access to material abroad.   The fact that the separation of the three pillars is not distinct in recent years is a dangerous sign. The political circles seem to connect with the other; they are one and the same. The patronage of titled individuals at the very top echelons of this structure leads to possible corruption and wastage, especially so if and when cronyism and nepotism are practiced.   C. Conclusion  I have not attempted to provide any useful solutions nor responses in this paper, as I explicitly did not set out to do so. In summary, there are numerous issues to take heed of in the development of Malaysia’s future. The foundational building blocks of society were provided for at the time of Independence. It is without a doubt that we have progressed far beyond what was given to us in 1957. Nevertheless, it seems as if leaders have sat on their comfortable laurels without taking concerted effort to single-mindedly drive out the filth that weighs down our country. As a result, the younger generation is leaving the country in fell swoops and bounds, in pursuit of more attractive careers abroad and to compete in an environment of equal ground and equal opportunity.  If equality is a true mark of democracy, this is what the country needs most. In dealing with each of the problems outlined above, justice and equality prevail above all. Socio-economic conditions must be considered as a reality, in dealing with problems arising from the NEP, and addressing problems faced by ethnic minorities. Secondly, the identity of the nation is currently at a vulnerable state, whose psyche has never quite recovered from colonialism and May 13th 1969, resulting in a complex intertwining between race and religion. Finally, institutional structures seem to be coming apart at the seams, where each pillar (Judiciary, Executive, Legislature) is facing real systemic problems. The separation of powers is also not markedly independent.  In analysis of the Malaysian Reality, I have attempted to present a case in a systematic and orderly manner. Face to face with Malaysia, one has no choice but to be downright forthright and honest about the problems. It is no longer possible to sweep things under the carpet.  In order to seek theological responses to these numerous issues, problem statements must first precede solutions. What the Malaysian Church needs is an active, dynamic interaction with these multi-layered subject matters, keeping things real; Bringing Malaysia right up to our steeples and pulpits. Facing Malaysia through a glass clearly.   

[1] Tun Tan Cheng Lock Papers, Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore.

[2] Report of the Commission of Enquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak, 1962, Kuala Lumpur.

[3] Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals, Kuala Lumpur: Government Printer 1957.

[4] Report of the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Commission 1957, London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

[5] Article 152, Federal Constitution of Malaysia, 1957.

[6] Article 3, Federal Constitution of Malaysia, 1957.

[7] Article 153, Federal Constitution of Malaysia, 1957.

[8] In reality, the Federal Constitution merely safeguards their “special position”, and nowhere is the phrase “special privilege” mentioned.

[9] Some have proffered alternative explanations for May 13th, 1969, one reason for which was to oust then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman from his position of authority.

[10] Overall Gini coefficient has worsened from 0.452 in 2001 to 0.462 in 2006. Source: Ninth Malaysia Plan, 2006.

[11] The Malay Archipelago includes neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia, within which Malays presently live.

[12] Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (2001).

[13] Toll concession agreements between the Government and private companies would reveal the amount of profit being made, revenue paid to Government, and hence the injustice of increasing toll prices. Justification used was that petrol prices were increasing simultaneously.

[14] Deputy Internal Security Minister was initially accused of accepting a total of RM5 million in exchange for allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country. He has since been cleared of this conviction.

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